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What happened to the women in Nigerian Hip-Hop? [Pulse Feature]

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The same year, Sasha released her cult classic debut, First Lady on the loaded Storm Records. A year earlier, B.O.U.Q.U.I released her self-titled debut from which she had the Sheyman-produced ‘Molejo.’

Over the next few years, ‘Best Female’ categories at continental music awards had Sasha carting away all the trophies. At the AMEN Awards in 2007, B.O.U.Q.U.I was named the Best Female Act. In 2009, B.O.U.Q.U.I released her sophomore album Redefinition, from which she had the smash hit, ‘Morile.’

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A few years prior to that, Weird MC came back into the Nigerian music industry with the Don Jazzy-produced smash hit, ‘Ijo Ya.’ Then in 2006, as P Square released a video album for songs off their debut album Get Squared, they released a remix to their smash hit, ‘Bizzy Body.’

A key factor to that Reggaeton remix becoming a hit was the presence of Weird MC and her verse.

In the mid-90’s, Weird MC had the cult hit, ‘Allen Avenue’ as she made herself a worthy successor to the likes of Oby Enyioha, the creator of Nigeria’s first Hip-Hop album by a female rapper. Fast forward to the 2000s, it was a core part of the ‘cool’ in the Nigerian musical zeitgeist to feature female rappers or feature female rappers on another version of a song.

In fact, before the emergence of acts like Omawumi and Waje, female rappers were sort of the female pop stars in Nigerian music. When General Pype wanted to release a remix to his smash hit ‘Champion’ in 2010, he reserved a verse for Sasha, the woman Beyonce reportedly hailed during her ThisDay performance in 2006.

In 2009, Sasha also featured Mozambique rap queen, Dama Do Bling on the bumper collaboration, ‘Put It Down.’

A year prior to that, Knighthouse floated a new Nigerian female act named Mo’Cheddah on a song titled, ‘Da Finest.’ A year later, she released a smash hit in ‘Loke Loke,’ released her criminally underrated debut album, Franchise Celebrity and won the Best New Act at the 2010 MTV Africa Music Awards.

It also felt like she was a leader of a new school that also included the prodigiously talented Eva Alordiah and surprise package, Muna who featured on Terry Tha Rapman‘s debut album. Her initial name was Babyrella.

Together, they all featured on the classic posse cut, ‘I No Send You’ by Da Suspekt in 2013. And that was as good as it got for the zenith of female participation in Nigerian Hip-Hop. A few years prior, Sound Sultan‘s discovery, Kel had also released the brilliant album, The Investment.

It all went downhill from there. How did it all go downhill?

The virality of contemporary Nigerian pop music

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2010 was the golden year of Nigerian Hip-Hop. It also coincided with the popularity of Nigerian pop music that Wande Coal premiered with Mushin To Mo’Hits and Wizkid popularized with his entire swagger.

The entrance of phenomena like Ice Prince, MI Abaga and Jesse Jagz with their effortless fusion of pop with tenets of rap music indirectly diluted rap music.

Together with the success of Olamide, DaGrin and Phyno, fans found unique ways to consume Nigerian Hip-Hop/Rap Music. It’s no coincidence that the dissipation of the zenith of female participation in Nigerian Hip-Hop coincided with the decline of mainstream appeal for Nigerian Hip-Hop and that of the legendary Modenine’s mainstream relevance.

Hip-Hop was badly hit by the emergence and virality of contemporary Nigerian pop and female Hip-Hop took a heavier hit. Phlow thinks, “It’s hard for the men and it’s 10 times harder for women.”

Legendary Nigerian rapper, Sasha illuminates, “As you know, mainstream music comes in cycles. At present, Hip Hop in general is not topping the Nigerian music charts so I am particularly proud of the women going against the grain and still following their passion. I do believe we need a stronger presence, but if they continue to stay the course – Winning is the only option!

Still, Eva Alordiah kept released bodies of work. We even briefly witnessed the ephemeral entrance of rappers like Zee, Splash, Lucy Q, Mz Kiss, and more. But over the past five years, only Phlowetry and to a lesser extent, Reespect come to mind when one thinks about Nigerian female rappers.

Saeon made a move for it, but she never could sustain it. These days, Candy Bleakz is part of a very limited appreciation. Other niche rappers like Deto Black, SGaWD and Gigi Atlantis are super-talented, but the work to truly make a mark is missing. Phlowetry has been consistent, but she hasn’t enjoyed acceptance that Sasha enjoyed.

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In place of the rapper, Sasha’s dominance in ‘Best Female’ categories at awards is Tiwa Savage, a pop star. We must also note that female participation is a general problem in Nigerian music – it’s not just limited to Hip-Hop.

The role of men

For a long time, men were criticized for not aiding the female cause in Nigerian music because they are the ones with vested interest and power. Women like Cuppy and Tiwa Savage were also criticized for pandering to the male gaze when they openly stated that they don’t identify as feminists.

Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade, the two biggest Nigerian stars of the past decade have also been criticized for their roles in the marginalization and reduced participation of women in Nigerian music. In Hip-Hop, women have not been criticizing men, but they have been asking for help.

At different points, MI Abaga has also openly stated that men need to do more in support of women in Nigerian music. Even though Sasha admits the power of men, she feels women need to take charge.

She says, “Men are just as important as the women themselves – It’s a collective effort. A lot of the gate keepers here are men. Of course, a vested interest in the success of a female brand is paramount. However, I think it’s time for women to also step beyond the booth and into a couple of boardrooms.

“We understand the complexity of the amount of work it takes to build a female brand. If more women are in instrumental positions, it will be much easier to create better opportunities.

She also feels that men should provide “GENUINE” support by, “Ensuring that the environment remains safe for young impressionable women trying to give their dreams a shot and by not putting them in compromising positions just to get ahead. To be clear, I mean no sexual harassment.”

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And finally, they can help foster healthier relationships by signing more than one woman at a time,” she continued. “This will go a long way in changing the narrative that there can only be one woman in any camp at a time. We don’t need titles… We need to own title deeds!

Phlow agrees and buttresses that as much as men have been supporting women, they still need to dedicate more time to support and encourage women.

Acceptance or a lack thereof

Phlow is a veteran of five bodies of work. She started recording in 2016 – the same year she released her debut. She has featured on numerous Hennessy Cyphers and her verse on the 2017 Hennessy Cypher was selected as one of the top verses across the world by Urban Central in the same year.

She highlights acceptance as another problem in this conversation, “Already it’s discouraging that there aren’t many female rappers around. The few who actually have sufficient courage and belief to go the mile give it their all. What do they get in return? Very much below what they expect. In the long run, it’s like a boy’s club.

“Anyone regardless of gender doesn’t want to be somewhere they are not wanted. I also think it’s about a lack of encouragement. Another thing that people don’t get is that men can keep trying at 45 and still be awesome. Imagine a 45-year old female rapper… [laughs].”

Work ethic

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Some Hip-Hop enthusiasts have placed the problem at a lack of proper work ethic that’s seemingly prevalent amongst female rappers while others place it at the root of skill. In some ways, that appears to be the case. A lot of Nigerian female rappers have a record of sparse releases.

But in the case of Phlow, skill is most definitely not the problem. She has also released five bodies of work in five years – the last was Marmalade, released earlier in the year.

She says, “I used to think work ethic was the problem, but it’s just about reception and acceptance.”

Artist Development

When Knighthouse launched Mo’Cheddah, it was the result of quality artist development. The same can be said of Sasha, who was initially signed to Trybesmen before she joined Storm Records. In her first chat with eLDee, she went with a friend who did the introduction. On the stop, eLDee asked her to record a song.

ALSO READ: Osagie Alonge discusses with Temi Gomez of Knighthouse [A Music In Time Podcast]

In the weeks after that, the video for her single, ‘E Wa Ba Mi Jo’ was recorded by eLDee. In those close quarters, the Sasha of Storm Records was formed.

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Sasha alludes to the problem of bad artist development these days. She says, “I don’t think there’s a problem, however there is a challenge in the area of artist development.

“The entertainment industry is so fast paced and in order to break through an artist needs to not only be talented but also understand the business. We need to constantly ask ourselves ” Why do I make music?”, “What is my message?”, “Who is my target audience?” And “How do I connect with them in a way that nourishes my passion and converts to profit at the same time?”

“Sometimes we forget that the music business is a BUSINESS! You can not be successful at it without a well thought out strategy and even if you get lucky…you can not stay lucky without a proper strategy.

While legends like iLLBliss and Modenine have tried to go the artist development route with Lucy Q and Splash respectively, it still goes back to the problem of timing and evolution of the Nigerian soundscape – which seems the fundamental issue confronting women in Nigerian Hip-Hop.

The female rapper and the demand for ‘sexuality’

Phlow used to be frustrated, but these days she is just living life. She also works in an IT company. She is also simply making the music to express innate passion of a craft she honed while attending University.

Sasha’s status is sealed as a legend. These days, the Law graduate runs her own media company, Purple Fire. Their respective lives coincides with a stereotype for the popular female rapper across the world; highly sexualized, explicity language and very ‘pop.’

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To be honest, it’s always been this way. The Lil Kims, Rah Diggas, Eve, Da Brats and Remy Mas of this world have highly sexualized personas.

However, they still had a lot of pronounced skillset. But for each of those women, there was the MC Lyte, Rapsody, Noname and Missy Elliot who were outliers. In Nigeria, the female rapper wasn’t exactly as sexualized in the 90’s and the 2000s because of the Nigerian fabric of conservative hypocrisy that aims to police the woman’s morality.

But these days, the woman has broken free and she is now expressive and very ‘avant-garde.’ The rise in the Cardi, Lil Baby Tate, Megan Thee Stallion and City Girls builds on the Trina template. It also coincides with the fourth wave of feminism that aims to promote freewill for the woman.

In the UK, rappers like Stefflon Don and Ms Banks echo similar sentiments. In Nigeria, talented rappers, Deto Black and Gigi Atlantis were hailed for their sexually explicit lyrics on Odunsi’s niche hit, ‘Body Count.’ The response to it is similar to what Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion got in the wake of their global smash, ‘WAP.’

While Phlow thinks the times have grown to be more accepting of this stereotype, she thinks it’s been that way from time. She says, “Rappers like Missy and Rapsody are an anomaly. I think it’s sad that it’s the only way women get accepted.

“I can’t do it because it’s not who I am. It will be worse if acceptance still doesn’t come with doing that [laughs]. But if anybody is comfortable with [explicit sexuality], then they should do it – by all means.

What can women do better?

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Sasha feels women need to work hard and work smart. She says, “I believe women have a unique ability to be effortlessly multi-tasking. In order to improve our chances we need to be willing to work ten times harder, never take no for an answer and understand that a closed door is not a closed dream.”

Sasha also feels that women need to adopt a more proactive and optimistic perspective. She continues, “If we see the cup as half empty, that will always be the case. The fact that we need better representation simply means the land is green and full of opportunities for women to thrive as long as we do our homework.

“I wish every young woman reading this – especially Hip hop artists – the very best. I want you to know that every time you achieve the tiniest thing. We are clapping and waiting for you to get your own moment in time.”

Phlow wants the next wave of female rappers to just express themselves in any way that pleases them. More importantly, she has faith that female rappers will soon get their due in Nigeria. Thus, she wants the next wave to also do it for the passion.